Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Iain Pears: "Arcadia" -- A Mash-Up

"'Of course I can cook,' she said crossly. 'I used to enjoy it. I can do fresh perch in a cream and sorrel sauce. Calf’s head in honey and vinegar. Jams and preserves of all sorts. What do we have?' 
"'Bread, cheese, beer, some pickled meats as a treat and porridge for breakfast,' Callan said with an amused snort. 
"'What about tomorrow?' 
"'Bread, cheese, beer, some pickled meats as a treat and porridge for breakfast,' Callan said again. 'That’s easy enough, then.' 
She could drink as well, and felt she deserved to, as she had been the one who had carried the two heavy jars of strong beer. Once the food was ready, Callan made the blessing over it and poured the beer into three earthenware pots. 
"'It may be against the rules,” he said, “but in my village, servants eat with the family. So sit you down, servant Kate, and join our meal.'" -- Arcadia: A novel (p. 275)
Arcadia by Iain Pears is full of delightful passages like this one between a master (fake) and a servant (also fake) living somewhat roughly in a wooded Arcadian environment. The book is a mash-up of genres and settings linked by a couple of time-travel machines invented by a "psychomathematician" named Angela Meerson. Her title doesn't mean she's psycho, but that she has some kind of sort of psychic power that lets her do mathematics sort of kind of magically -- don't ask. Unfortunately, in reading the book's 500 plus pages I wasn't happy with the quantity of effort that it took to get through it compared to the rewards of doing so.

As for the genres: there's the Arcadia part set in an imaginary Shakespearean or Renaissance-Fair ideal time/place with a lot of references to "As You Like It." There's the dystopian future part set around 200 years from now where despotically-managed technology oppresses the enormous population of the planet. And there's the 1960 part set in Oxford where literary scholars are creating fantasies (like Tolkien and C.S.Lewis) and where they can also be former spies: in other words, a literary fiction genre mixed with a cold-war-spy genre. 

"As You Like It" performed in the Ann Arbor Arboretum. June, 2014.
A mash-up of twentieth century and Shakespeare the way Pears seems to envision it.
Each of these sub-plots is populated by a large number of characters. The reader is required to keep track of them as the narrative jumps around without what I would view as helpful reminders. A few of the central characters are transported in Angela Meerson's time machines and appear in more than one setting. Sometimes they aren't clearly identified, though maybe you are supposed to recognize them. I didn't always manage this trick.

Really, I don't want to go into more about this book, though I am proud that I pursued reading it to the very end. In its favor, I can say that Pears did a remarkable job of pulling all the story threads together in the concluding chapter.

If you want a thorough critical discussion of Arcadia, including identification of its numerous literary references, I suggest that you read the reviews in the New York Times by Scott Bradfield (March, 2016) and in Strange Horizons by Paul Kincaid (November, 2015). The book also has an app if you want to read it in a different order or something; I didn't have anything to do with the app.

If you want to read a book by Iain Pears I strongly recommend An Instance of the Finger Post (which I reviewed here) or one of his art-history mysteries, not Arcadia.

1 comment:

Kitchen Riffs said...

Thanks for the review. I've heard of this, but it didn't sound like my thing. But I'm kind of stuck in the 19th century, reading-wise, at the moment -- SO many good books written then!